I expected a lot from my first visit to Austin, the fourth largest city in Texas. I expected to see the trappings of political power, as I would in any state capital. I expected to find quirky nightclubs and innumerable places to listen to live music. I expected to discover more food trucks per capita than is probably reasonable. What I didn’t expect to find though was a wide array of ways to get outside and enjoy nature. Most cities have some sort of green space, activities to enjoy the great outdoors but in Austin I was surprised not only by the many options, but how often locals take advantage of these natural offerings. Turns out, they formed the basis of my own time exploring Austin, fun ways not only to be active and enjoy the summer, but to experience the best of Austin itself. I was in Texas working with Marriott International to highlight some amazing cities around the state but, as always, all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.
There’s a lot to love about downtown Austin, from the incredible JW Marriott – my home while in the city – to the capital building, one of the most striking in the country. Another notable downtown activity though is Austin’s most famous residents, the bats. The South Congress Avenue Bridge is home to more than a million Mexico free-tailed bats and their nocturnal wanderings have made the city famous. Every night they leave the bridge in search of insects towards the coast, but the process of departure is what attracts all of the attention. Joining hundreds of other curious onlookers, I wandered down to the bridge as the golden hour ended and the sun began to set. Although it was the middle of the week, the observation platform and the bridge itself were packed, a mix of locals and tourists like me. The timing of the great bat emergence varies; it depends on them really. But eventually the crowd grew more and more excited as first one, then two and then suddenly thousands of bats left their daytime home and started to fly over the nearby treetops. Departing simultaneously, the resulting patterns and shapes of the murmuration of bats is nothing short of mesmerizing. I never thought I’d find bats flying to be so beautiful and interesting, but the experience took my breath away.
Kayaking through the city
I always love being on the water, so one activity I made sure to try was spending the morning on Lady Bird Lake. This river-called-lake runs through downtown Austin and connects it with the city’s many parks, from Zilker to Barton Springs and beyond. For just $20 (they should probably charge more) I paddled along as the guide explained more about the history of the city, from the Congress Avenue Bridge all the way to Barton Springs Park. Leaving early in the morning, before the heat of the day, it was the perfect way to not only see the best of Austin from the water, but to get a lot of exercise in the process. Even better, the boathouse is located right downtown and was an easy five-minute walk from the JW Marriott Austin. Although it depends on the weather, this is one of those experiences I think every visitor to Austin needs to try for themselves.
Parks and pools
Not only does Austin have some incredible urban parks, but as it turns out there are a number of swimming holes throughout the region. I’m not going to lie, summer is hot in Austin but that’s why locals love these pools so much, as I discovered on a quick visit to Barton Springs Pool. Located in the heart of the 360-acre Zilker Park, the pool features incredibly clear water that is fed from underground springs and stays a refreshing 68 degrees year ‘round. Combine that will plenty of grassy hills for sunbathing or people watching, and you have the makings of a fun afternoon outside. There is a fee to enter and the pool fills up fast, so get there early. Barton Springs isn’t the only swimming hole though, so be sure to check out the many others in and around Austin. The parks aren’t just nice places for hiking or biking, they’re also home to scores of festivals throughout the year. Austin embraces the fun side of life, so check to see if there’s a festival or concert on during your visit.
The great outdoors always plays a role in my trips, but I was surprised by how important being outside was during my time in Austin. I never expected nature to be as important as it was, but those fun outdoor experiences transformed what would have been an ok experience into a fun trip I know I’ll never forget.